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The Hobbit

or Deus and Bad Again: A Writer's Tale
Bilbo trying to find his character development

You might think for a nerd and avid reader, I might have read J. R. R. Tolkien's "masterpieces" much earlier in life. You'd be wrong, of course, because I had other masterpieces to read and I was always more interested in science fiction (or science textbooks) and found the fantasy genre in general to be somewhat less interesting to me.

Be that as it may, I have finally begun to read through Tolkien's writing beginning, naturally, with The Hobbit. I had been warned repeatedly that Tolkien's writing was dry, long-winded, encyclopaedic. That he could spend pages and pages describing a hill. I'd been warned more specifically that The Hobbit was a children's book and was therefore less sophisticated. I have frequently and often been told that his books are popular for the deep and complex world he creates and not so much for the characters or themes or plot in general. (The plot of his books is the subject of frequent arguments over practicality and "plot holes" and if you're reading this then you're probably already familiar with many of those. Eagles. Fly you fools.)

But one thing I was not prepared for was just how utterly BAD The Hobbit is. It is by far the worst book I have ever read, surpassing even Harry Potter. And it is so bad because J. R. R. Tolkien is by far the worst writer I have ever read, surpassing even J. K. Rowling. 

When I say it's bad, I'm not talking about dry exposition. I'm not saying that it is not an interesting or entertaining story. I'm saying that it's a story so poorly told, so poorly written, that its critical and popular success is rather mind boggling. 

To wit:
Tolkien is just a bad writer. Uwe Boll could have taught him a thing or two. He writes as an amateur who skipped every language class in school. His characters are beyond shallow, what attributes they do have are invented on the spot right when the plot requires them, every plot point or encounter is resolved by Deus ex Machina, character dialogue is insufferably flat and wooden...

(It has nothing to do with it being a "children's book". My complaint is not that his writing is aimed towards a young audience, but that his writing is that of a young, inexperienced, novice writer who doesn't know what he's doing. I have to explain this to Harry Potter fans every time I talk to them - Harry Potter is not bad because it's a 6th grade reading level, it's bad because Rowling has a 6th grade writing level. Tolkien in The Hobbit has a 3rd grade writing level, with the occasional 11th grade vocab word thrown in, confusticate it all.)

His characters are probably my biggest complaint. They are not simply shallow, they practically don't exist! They are given names and some of them are given a particular color of cloak, but that is the full extent of their development. (Oh, Bombur and the Great Goblin are also fat.) What little character development does exist belongs to Bilbo and none of it is established until called for by the plot. (Oh, Bilbo who never ever needed to sneak in his life now needs to sneak... Wouldn't you know it, Bilbo can sneak now! And he's very good at it, he's always been good at sneaking, he's quite the expert, wouldn't ya know.)

On that note, Thorin comes in a distant second for character development, but only because he gets dragon sickness at the end. And I'm perhaps giving Tolkien too much credit here because the dragon sickness is directly related to the Arkenstone so you could say the Arkenstone is the second most developed character in the book. Which makes sense, actually, since all of the characters are about as well developed as a rock.

The Deus ex Gandolf, *cough* I mean machina, wouldn't be so terrible if it wasn't so consistent or obvious. Every single thing that goes wrong, it's either Gandolf appearing suddenly to fix it (Bilbo's running late, the trolls have everyone tied up, the goblins have everyone tied up), Bilbo developing some new fantastic skill (oh he can sneak now, oh he can throw rocks now, oh he can turn invisible now), or new characters just appearing out of nowhere to help (the eagles twice, Beorn twice, a talking bird, a different talking bird, Bard...).

I will give Tolkien credit for Bilbo actually rescuing his party by wit twice - his battle with the spiders and his weeks of searching to find a way out of the forest elf king's dungeon. But the spider battle still had its share of deus ex (in the form of Bilbo suddenly being an expert rock thrower and the elf clearing being magically protected). Leaving the escape from the elves to be perhaps the one and only legitimate victory in the entire book. Still, it's one, so credit where credit is due. And at least the thrush got introduced and developed (far more character development than Kili or Fili ever got!) before saving the day.

I will also give Tolkien this much credit: his writing improves dramatically in The Lord of the Rings. It would seem he didn't simply spend 15 years writing the book, he spent much of that time learning how to write as well. And though I have only just begun to read The Lord of the Rings, I find myself rather enjoying it. His dialogue is still flat and wooden - and oh how there is so much more of it now. But at least his characters get some development early on in the story and obstacles are being overcome by the feature characters themselves. And the "concerning hobbits" prologue does a fair bit of retcon to make Bilbo's suddenly acquired and out of character abilities to be racial traits of hobbits in general, which makes them slightly more palatable. 

With all of the editing and revising and rewriting Tolkien did to later editions of The Lord of the Rings, it just would have been nice if he'd spent a week or two to go back and give The Hobbit some attention.

2 out of 10 stars, would not recommend. All the important stuff is retold in the sequel.

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